Every year during the holiday season, I try to put together a short list of the best books that I’ve read during the last year to give as gifts to family, friends, - or even to oneself.
What's on your list this year? Share your additions and selections in the comment section below.
This year my offering includes seven novels and three works of nonfiction. Eight of them were published in 2011, and two in 2010. Enjoy!
Sylvia Nasar – Grand Pursuit: The Story of Economic Genius (2011)
Nasar, who wrote the best seller, A Beautiful Mind, brings her talent and gift for telling a story to the history of economics from John Stuart Mill to Amartya Sen. This is the story of men and women who dreamed of “saddling economics” to serve human needs. This is not about dry theories and formulas. This is a story of personalities and genius, and how the world is driven by great ideas much more than just money.
Erik Larson – In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin (2011)
This is not just another dry historical saga about WWII. This is a personal story of William E. Dodd who is appointed Ambassador to Germany in 1933, and how he and his family witnessed Hitler’s dictatorial takeover of the German people. Dodd, a professor of History at the University of Chicago, continuously warns Washington of Hitler’s plots and plans, but nobody listens. It's also the story of how his family got to meet and spend time with many of those in power in Germany (e.g. Joseph Goebbels, Herman Goring, and the first chief of the Gestapo Rudolf Diels) - and he how they found them at once clever and charming, and loathsome and despicable.
Martin Davidson – The Perfect Nazi (2010)
Hannah Arendt, in covering the Adolph Eichmann trial, coined the phrase the “banality of evil.” She meant that Eichmann was a evil man, but he didn’t look or act like the devil. He simply looked like an ordinary man. It's a fitting characterization for writer Martin Davis, who long thought his wonderful German grandfather was an ordinary man who'd survived the Nazi regime. Instead, in this gripping account, Davis learns that his grandfather was an early and eager member of the Nazi party, who started his career in the SA in 1927 and ended the war as an officer in the SS. He did his job, he did his duty, and thus became, the “perfect Nazi”.
Larry Watson – American Boy (2011)
Larry Watson has been writing about small towns and living in the Midwest for a long time. (One of my all time favorite novels is his 1993 book, Montana 1948.) His novels reflect the lives of people connected to the land, the vagueries of the weather, and the community of which they are a part. This is a story of friendship, first love, mentoring, and hope. It’s also a story of betrayal, and how blood always trumps friendship.
Julian Barnes – The Sense of an Ending (2011)
Barnes is a master wordsmith. His prose is polished, elegant, “deliciously intriguing,” haunting, and surgically correct. This book deservedly won the 2011 Man Booker Prize. It’s a story of aging, faulty memory, the power of imagination, and the power of long-cherished beliefs and ideas. The question being asked is: Do we remember things as they were, or as we want them to be?
Kevin Wilson – The Family Fang (2011)
This book is a tragedy and a comedy. It’s about a family of eccentric parents and soon-to-be neurotic kids, and how they would barnstorm the country and put on interactive, unannounced, uninvited, theatrical events in public places. The parents achieved cult-like status; the children never really achieved a state of balanced adulthood. This is a funny, yet cutting satirical analysis of the theatrical counterparts to absent-minded professors.
Henning Mankell – The Troubled Man (2011)
This is book 10 in the series of popular Kurt Wallander detective novels. Wallander is a Swedish cop with a social conscious and a deeply philosophical turn of mind. As a cop, he sees both the worst kind of people, and people at their worst. His problem: He hates his work, but he is good at it. He's afraid that if he stops trying to fight evil, evil will win. And so he soldiers on, but at the cost of his personal happiness, and, in the end, his very sanity. This is my favorite novel of the year.
Ann Patchett – State of Wonder (2011)
There’s a reason this book is on the New York Times Best Seller Lists and has been universally praised in the press. It’s written by an author with talent and credentials. It has been unavoidably compared to Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, and the comparison is apt. It’s a story about the mysteries of friendship, science, fame, fortune and the Amazon. It’s the story of a friend searching for a friend and seeking the truth about her life in the depths of the Amazon rain forest.
Philip Kerr – Field Grey (2010)
Kerr is the author of the Bernie Gunther series. Gunther is a homicide cop and then a private detective in Berlin in the 1930s. A soldier in WWI, he was tired of war, and he thought Hitler a dangerous and bad man. In WWII, he is dragooned into the SS and is captured in Russia. This is the story of Bernie on the run from the Russians, the Americans, and his old comrades of the war. This entire series is compelling and historically fascinating. And it is a story of a German hero, who hated the Nazis, even though to the outside world, he was one.
Edward Conlon – Red on Red (2011)
If you like police procedurals this book is for you. It is rich in character development and plot. It is both literate and suspenseful. But it is not for the faint of heart. It is deep, dark and very, very Dostoevskian. In the words of Joseph Wambaugh, this book is “passionate, pulsating, and poignant!” You will be simultaneously engaged, enraged and energized by this book.
Al Gini is a professor of business ethics and chair of the department of management at Loyola University Chicago. He is also the co-founder and associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly, and the author of several books, including My Job, My Self and Seeking the Truth of Things: Confessions of a (catholic) Philosopher.